Special Glasses Needed to Spot Network Security Holes

By Art Reisman

CTO – http://www.netequalizer.com

Would you leave for vacation with your garage door wide open or walk off the edge of a cliff looking for a lost dog? Whether it be a bike lock, or that little beep your car makes when you hit the button on your remote, you rely on physical confirmation for safety and security every day.

Because network security holes do not illuminate any of our human senses, most businesses run blind with respect to what are obvious vulnerabilities. Security holes can be glaringly obvious to a hacker.

Have you ever seen an Owl swoop down in the darkness and grab a rabbit? I have, but only once, and that was in the dim glow of field illuminated by some nearby stadium lights. Owls take hundreds of rodents every night under the cover of darkness, they have excellent night vision and most rodents don’t.

To a hacker, a security hole can be just as obvious as that rabbit. You might feel seemingly secure under the cover of darkness. To your senses what may be invisible is quite obvious to a hacker. They have ways of illuminating your security holes. And then, they can choose to exploit them if deemed juicy enough. For some entry points, a hacker might have to look a little bit harder, like lifting a door mat to reveal a key. Never the less, they will see the key, and the problem is you won’t even know the key is under the mat.

Fancy automated tools that report risk are nice, but the only way to expose your actual network security holes is to hire somebody with night vision goggles that can see the holes. Most tools that do audits are not good enough by themselves, they sort of bumble around in the dark looking and feeling for things, and they really do not see them the way a hacker does.

I’d strongly urge any company that is serious about updating their security to employ a white knight hacker before any other investment outlay. For the same reason that automated systems cannot replace humans, even though billions have been spent on them over the years, you should not start your security defense with an automated tool. It must start with a human hell bent on breaking into your business and then showing you the holes. It never ceases to amaze me the types of holes our white knight hackers find. There is nothing better at spotting security holes than a guy with special glasses.

Four Reasons Why Companies Remain Vulnerable to Cyber Attacks

Over the past year, since the release of our IPS product, we have spent many hours talking to resellers and businesses regarding Internet security. Below are our observations about security investment, and more importantly, non-investment.

1) By far the number one reason why companies are vulnerable is procrastination.

Seeing is believing, and many companies have never been hacked or compromised.

Some clarification here, most attacks do not end in something being destroyed or any obvious trail of data being lifted. This does not mean they do not happen; it’s just that there was no immediate ramification in many cases hence, business as usual.

Companies are run by people, and most people are reactive, and furthermore somewhat single threaded, thus they can only address a few problems at a time. Without a compelling obvious problem, security gets pushed down the list. The exception to the procrastination rule would be verticals such as financial institutions, where security audits are mandatory (more on audits in a bit). Most companies, although aware of  risk factors, are reluctant to spend on a problem that has never happened. In their defense, a company that reacts to all the security FUD, might find itself hamstrung and out of business. Sometimes, to be profitable, you have to live with a little risk.

2) Existing security tools are ignored.

Many security suites are just too broad to be relevant. Information overload can lead to a false sense of coverage.

The best analogy I can give is the Tornado warning system used by the National Weather Service. Their warning system, although well-intended, has been so diffuse in specificity that after a while people ignore the warnings. The same holds true with security tools. In order to impress and out-do one another, security tools have become bloated with quantity, not quality. This overload of data can lead to an overwhelming glut of frivolous information. It would be like a stock analyst predicting every possible outcome and expecting you to invest on that advice. Without a specific, targeted piece of information, your security solution can be a distraction.

3) Security audits are mandated formalities.

In some instances, a security audit is treated as a bureaucratic mandate. When security audits are mandated as a standard, the process of the audit can become the objective. The soldiers carrying out the process will view the completed checklist as the desired result and thus may not actually counter existing threats. It’s not that the audit does not have value, but the audit itself becomes a minimum objective. And most likely the audit is a broad cookie-cutter approach which mostly serves to protect the company or individuals from blame.

4) It may just not be worth the investment.

The cost of getting hacked may be less than the ongoing fees and consumption of time required to maintain a security solution. On a mini-scale, I followed this advice on my home laptop running Windows. It was easier to re-load my system every 6 months when I got a virus rather than mess with all the security virus protection being thrown at me, slowing my system down. The same holds true on a corporate scale. Although nobody would ever come out and admit this publicly, or make it deliberately easy, but it might be more cost-effective to recover from a security breach than to proactively invest in preventing it. What if your customer records get stolen, so what? Consumers are hearing about the largest banks and government security agencies getting hacked every day. If you are a mid-sized business it might be more cost-effective to invest in some damage control after the fact rather than jeopardize cash flow today.

So what is the future for security products? Well, they are not going to go away. They just need to be smarter, more cost-effective, and turn-key, and then perhaps companies will find the benefit-to-risk more acceptable.

<Article Reference:  Security Data overload article >

Do We Really Need SSL?

By Art Reisman, CTO, www.netequalizer.com, www.netgladiator.net.

Art Reisman CTO www.netequalizer.com

I know that perception is reality, and sometimes it is best to accept it, but when it comes to security, FUD, I get riled up.

For example, last year I wrote about the un-needed investment surrounding the IPV4 demise, and, as predicted, the IPv6 push turned out to be mostly vendor hype motivated by a desire to increase equipment sales. Today, I am here to dispel the misplaced fear around the concept of having your data stolen in transit over the Internet. I am referring to the wire between your residence and the merchant site at the other end. This does  not encompass the security of data once it is stored on disk drive at its final location, just the transit portion.

To get warmed up, let me throw out some analogies.

Do you fear getting carjacked going 75 mph on the interstate?

Most likely not, but I bet you do lock your doors when stopped.

Do you worry about encrypting your cell phone conversations?

Not unless you are on security detail in the military.

As with my examples, somebody stealing your credit card while it is in transit, although possible, is highly impractical; there are just better ways to steal your data.

It’s not that I am against VPN’s and SSL, I do agree there is a risk in transport of data. The problem I have is that the relative risk is so much lower than some other glaring security holes that companies ignore because they are either unaware, or more into perception than protecting data. And yet, customers will hand them financial data as long as their web site portal provides SSL encryption.

To give you some more perspective on the relative risk, let’s examine the task of stealing customer information in transit over the Internet.

Suppose for a moment that I am a hacker. Perhaps I am in it for thrills or for illegal financial gain, either way, I am going to be pragmatic with my approach and maximize my chances of finding a gold nugget.

So how would I go about stealing a credit card number in transit?

Option 1: Let’s suppose I parked in the alley behind your house and had a device sophisticated enough to eaves drop your wireless router and display all the web sites you visited. So now what? I just wait there, and hope perhaps in a few days or weeks you’ll make an online purchase and I’ll grab your cc information, and then I’ll run off and make a few purchases.  This may sound possible, and it is, but the effort and exposure would not be practical.

Option 2: If I landed a job at an ISP, I could hook up a sniffer that eaves drops on every conversation between the ISP customers and the rest of the Internet. I suppose this is a bit more likely than option 1;  but there is just no precedent for it – and ISPs often have internal safeguards to monitor and protect against this. I’d still need very specialized equipment and time to work unnoticed to pull this off. I’d have to limit my thefts to the occasional hit and run so as not to attract suspicion. The chances of economic benefit are slim, and the chances of getting caught are high, and thus the risk to the customer is very low.

For the criminal intent on stealing data, trolling the internet with a bot looking for unsecured servers, or working for a financial company where the data resides, and stealing thousands of credit cards is far more likely. SSL does nothing to prevent the real threats, and that is why you hear about hacking intrusions in the headlines everyday. Many of these break-ins could be prevented, but it takes a layered approach, not just a feel good SSL layer that we could do without.

The Truth About Web Security (And How to Protect Your Data)

By Zack Sanders – Security Expert at APconnections.

Security Theater

Internet security is an increasingly popular and fascinating subject that has pervaded our lives through multiple points of entry in recent years. Because of this infiltration, security expertise is no longer a niche discipline teetering on the fringe of computer science – it’s an integral part. Computer security concerns have ceased to be secondary thoughts and have made their way to the front lines of business decisions, political banter, and legislative reform. Hackers are common subjects in movies, books, and TV shows. It seems like every day we are reading about the latest security breach of a gigantic, international conglomerate. Customers who once were naive to how their data was used and stored are now outwardly concerned about their privacy and identity theft.

This explosion in awareness has, of course, yielded openings for the opportunistic. Companies now know there is a real business need for security, and there are thus hundreds of solutions available to you to improve your security footprint. But most of them are not telling you the truth about how to really secure your infrastructure. They just want to sell you their product – hyping its potential, touting its features, and telling you to install it and – *poof* – you no longer need to worry about security – something those in the industry call “Security Theater.” In many ways, these companies are actually making you less secure because of this sales point. Believing that you can plug in an “all-in-one device” and have it provide you with all of your security controls sounds good, but it’s unrealistic. When you stop being diligent on multiple levels, you start being vulnerable.

Real security is all about two things:

2) Implementing LAYERED security controls.

Let’s briefly discuss each of these central tenants of best-practice security.

1) Being proactive is key for many reasons. When you are proactive with security, you are anticipating attacks before they start. This allows you to more calmly implement security controls, develop policies, and train staff before a breach occurs. You should be proactive about security for the same reasons you are proactive about your health. Eating well, exercising, and periodically seeing a doctor are all ways to improve your chances of remaining healthy. It doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick, much in the same way security controls won’t guarantee you won’t get hacked, but it does greatly improve your odds. And if you are not proactive, just like with your personal health, if something does go wrong, it can often be too late to reverse the effects, as most of the damage has already been done.

2) Implementing a layered approach to security is paramount in reducing the odds of a successful attack. The goal is to take security controls that complement each other on different levels of your infrastructure and piece them together to form a solid line of defense. If one control is breached, another is there to back it up in a different, but equally effective way. It is actually possible to take products that are relatively ineffective on their own (say 75% effective), and layer them to lower the chances of a successful attack to less than 1%. If you implement just four 75%-effective tools, say, check out what your breach success rate becomes: (.25 * .25 * .25 *.25) = .0039 * 100 = 0.39%! That’s pretty impressive!

Here is an analogy

Think of your sensitive data as crown jewels that are stored in the center of a castle. If your only security control is a moat, it wouldn’t take much ingenuity for a thief to cross over the moat and subsequently steal your jewels. One thing we can do to improve security is better our moat. Let’s add some crocodiles – that will certainly help in thwarting would-be crossers. But, even though we’ve beefed up the security of the moat, it’s still passable. The problem is that we can never 100% secure the moat from thieves no matter what we do. We need to add in some complementary controls to back up the security of the moat in case the moat fails. So, we’ll place archers at the four corner towers and install a big door with multiple locks and guards at the front gate. We’ll move the jewels to the cellar and place them under lock and key with a designated guard. Knights will be trained to spot thieves, and there will be a checkpoint outside the castle for all incoming and outgoing guests. Now, instead ofhaving to just cross the moat, a thief would also have to get through the heavy door, through the locks, past the guards, past the archers, into the cellar, past another guard, and into the locked room. On exit, he’d have to get through all these again, including a manual search at the checkpoint. That seems tough to do compared to just crossing the moat.

Your web security infrastructure should work the same way. Multiple policies, devices, and configurations should all work in harmony to protect your sensitive data. When companies are trying to sell you an all-in-one security device, they are essentially trying to sell you a very robust moat. It’s not that their product won’t provide value, but it needs to be implemented as part of an overall security strategy, and it should not be solely relied upon.

How Real Attacks Occur

We have thought a lot lately about exactly how real attacks occur in the wild for organizations with interactive web applications. This is slightly simplistic, but it really seems to boil down to two key origins:

1) A hack results from an AUTOMATED scan or probe.

This is by far the most common type of attack, despite it not being as popular as the other. Many organizations don’t take this type of attack as seriously as they should. They think that just because they are a small, non-influential site with little customer data that they won’t be targeted. And they are probably right – a human attacker won’t be targeting them. But a robot has no discretion. The robot’s goal is to increase hosts in their botnet (for DOS attacks, sending SPAM, etc.), and to siphon off any available sensitive data from the server. The botnets are constantly scouring the Internet, rapidly attempting breaches with known, common patterns. They don’t get too sophisticated.

2) A hack results from a TARGETED attack.

The media has hyped this into the most popular type of attack, but it is much less common. Targeted attacks can begin from multiple motivations. Sometimes, a targeted attack will occur due to interesting results from an automated scan (as in #1, above). The other type of targeted attack is the most dangerous – an attacker, or group of attackers, specifically targeting your site for financial or political reasons. Despite what other products might profess, there is no one-stop solution for stopping this type of attack. A layered approach to security, as discussed above, is key.

Approaches to Dealing with Botnets/Malnets and other Automated Attacks

Botnets are large, distributed networks of private computers and servers that are infected with malicious software without the owner of the system being aware. The botnet computers can be used to scan targets for vulnerabilities or send out SPAM/malicious emails. Using systems registered to someone else provides a layer of anonymity to the attacker. He/she also has increased processing power and resources available at their disposal. Botnets rely heavily on attempting simple intrusions and speed. They often are brute forcing directory listings or credentials and once they’ve exhausted their lists, they move on.

There are a few things you can do to greatly lower the effectiveness of a botnet:

1) Think about if your website really needs to be open to the entire Internet. Are there countries/subnets that you will never receive business from? Why not just block these IP ranges right off the bat? It seems harsh at first, but if you think about it, there is a lot of added security value here for the small risk you turn away a legitimate customer.

2) Implement a tool that monitors the amount of requests received over a given time frame. A normal user won’t ever be requesting pages at the same rate as a botnet. If the request count reaches past a certain threshold, you can confidently block the offending IP.

3) Implement a tool that monitors logs for multiple 404 (Page Not Found) requests. Brute-force tools will generate plenty of 404 requests when they are hammering your servers. If you see multiple 404’s over a short period of time from the same IP, chances are good they are acting maliciously.

4) Look for common patterns in logs that suggest malicious intent. The information discovery process is very important for an attacker (or botnet). It is during this phase that they learn about possible vulnerabilities your sites might have. In order to find these holes, the attacker has to experiment with the site to see how it responds to malicious code. If you can isolate these probing attempts right off the bat, you stand a good chance at cutting off the information gathering process before they get results on potential attack vectors.

5) Implement a file integrity monitoring tool on your web server and have it actively alert to changes in files that are not supposed to change often. If an attacker finds an entry point, one of the first things they will try and do is upload a file to the server. Getting a file to the server is a huge accomplishment for an attacker. They can upload PHP or ASP files that act as shell interfaces to the server itself, and from there can wreak whatever havoc they’d like. With a file integrity monitoring tool, you can know if an file is added within minutes of upload and can deal with the threat before it is wide spread.

The NetGladiator

NetGladiator is a next-generation Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) made by APconnections that deals with some of the issues above and was built based on how attacks actually occur. It can be an effective layer in your security profile to help block unwanted web-based requests (either from a botnet or a targeting attacker) – you can think of it as a firewall for your web applications. In addition to handling web requests, it can detect time-based anomalies and block IP ranges by country and/or subnet.

NetGladiator has two primary goals:

1) Make your web infrastructure INVISIBLE and UNINTERESTING to probing botnets.
2) Provide value as a LAYERED appliance in case of a targeted attack.

NetGladiator also has some of the following aspects that set it apart from more expensive, overly robust IPS’s:

Customizable Configurations
Unlike other IPSs with insanely robust pattern sets, NetGladiator lets you pick and choose the patterns you’d like it to hit on. Other products inspect for every vulnerability known to man. While this sounds good, it isn’t very practical and often leads to broken functionality, false positives, and total reliance.

Support From a White Knight (a.k.a Professional Hacker)
As part of your support agreement when you purchase a NetGladiator, a real, white knight will help you set up and configure your machine to meet your needs. This includes identifying and patching any existing holes prior to your installation, deciding what issues you might face from a real attacker, and writing you a custom configuration for your box. That’s something that no one else provides – especially at this price point. And, if you want further security assessments performed, additional support hours can be purchased.

Plug and Play
If you’ve set up a NetEqualizer in the past, you’ll find NetGladiator’s installation process to be even easier. Just put it in front of your web servers, cable the box correctly, and turn it on. Traffic will be passing through it instantly. Now all that’s left is to configure your patterns. NetGladiator comes with default patterns in case no customization is necessary. NetGladiator also runs on its own system, and does not require any installs to your web server. This makes it platform independent and will create zero conflicts with your existing software and hardware.

But remember, protecting web applications is just one piece of the puzzle. In order to layer NetGladiator into your overall security strategy, you should complement its use with other controls. Some examples would be:

– Well-defined user and staff policies that deal with insider threats and social engineering

– Full or column-level database encryption

– Anti-virus

– File integrity monitoring

– Hardware firewalls

– A security assessment by an expert



Need help instituting a layered security strategy? We have experience in all these levels of security controls and are happy to help with NetGladiator implementation or other security-related tasks. Just let us know how we can be of service!

Have some questions about NetGladiator or web security in general? Visit our website, leave a comment, or shoot us an email at ips@apconnections.net. In the next blog post, we’ll answer those questions and also discuss common ones we’ve received from customers so far.

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